Seven-year-old Justin Virts was racing in a parking lot outside his school on May 25 when his wheelchair flipped over. His face hit the pavement, breaking his nose and knocking out a tooth, his mother, Jeannie Virts, says.
Virts says the injuries might have been less extensive if her son’s teacher hadn’t fallen on top of him during the crash, injuring herself as well. But Virts is more upset about the race itself, and the school’s role in it.
Justin has cerebral palsy. Staff members of the UCP Delrey School in Halethorpe, including the school nurse, were pushing Justin and another child with the same disability in a wheelchair race, Virts says.
This is apparently a routine activity at the small private school, which has students with cerebral palsy and other disabilities and receives state and federal grant money under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. “I don’t think they should be running with kids like that in wheelchairs,” Virts says.
Justin’s accident and a less serious one that happened a few weeks later appear to have put the school’s leadership on guard. Citing “potential litigation,” a public relations specialist who works for the school said she could not respond to City Paper’s questions about the wheelchair crash or the school’s racing policies.
But before the information lockdown on June 8, staff members reluctantly told Virts about the race, she says. Virts describes a chaotic scene outside Saint Agnes Hospital’s emergency room, where she was summoned shortly after the accident: “When they opened the door the nurse was with him,” Virts says. “When I saw Justin, I was shocked. He was crying. He said, ‘My chair fell over.’
“When they got out of the ambulance they were telling me what happened,” Virts continues. “I asked the lady, ‘Who was pushing him?’ She said, ‘I was.’ I looked at her. I was so mad. She didn’t apologize. Didn’t say nothing.”
Details came slowly, Virts says, adding that her husband visited the school to make inquiries, and learned about the race.
City Paper had a similar experience when a reporter called the school a week later. Juanita Teed, the nurse who had allegedly been pushing Justin’s wheelchair, answered the phone but said she could not provide any information. She transferred the call to the school’s principal, Mimi Wang.
“There’s not much I can tell you,” Wang said on May 30. “It was explained to me that it was an accident.”
After further questioning, Wang said the crash came during “a regular race” on field day. Asked if anything like this had happened before, she replied, “Nothing to this degree. We have daycare kids. Sometimes they fall, when they are running or walking. We did handle it.”
Asked if there would be any changes to the wheelchair-racing program in light of the crash, Wang replied, “There’s nothing to change. It was a wide-open parking lot. It was flat.”
The UCP Delrey School is operated by United Cerebral Palsy of Central Maryland, which is part of the United Cerebral Palsy Associations Inc., a 60-year-old nonprofit specializing in cerebral palsy. UCP Central Maryland has a $21 million annual budget, according to its tax returns. It has seldom been sued.
Questions about wheelchair racing sent to UCP’s national office in Washington, D.C., brought the suggestion that we try the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability. Calls to them brought forth Bob Lujano, a recreation specialist with the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala. “To me, we’re talking about basic general fitness and wellness,” Lujano said. “I don’t know of an exercise where you get benefit from someone doing the work for you. If you talk to any physical trainer they would probably tell you the same thing.”
Lujano, a quad amputee and a medal-winner in the 2004 Paralympic Games in wheelchair rugby—he was in the 2005 documentary Murderball, about the lead-up to the Games—then asked the obvious question: “Would you do that with any other student—grab him and push him to the finish line?”
Lujano e-mailed later to suggest myriad ways a school might alter its physical education program to get disabled kids on the field with each other, under their own power, and even competing with the able-bodied: “An example can be a kid in a wheelchair that doesn’t push very fast can compete in a race against an able-bodied kid who has to hop on one leg or hop backwards. Understand?”
Virts says she fought hard to get Justin into Delrey. He had come home with bite marks from his former preschool, she says, and the Delrey school had a good reputation. “I don’t sue people,” she says. “I never sued anyone. I didn’t want to talk to a lawyer. I never had a problem with this school.”
Virts says her son has been doing well during the nearly three years he’s been at Delrey, but in recent months there have been injuries. She says on Friday, June 1, Justin came home with a headache and was unwilling to talk about it. She says he eventually let slip that he’d been dropped by a school teacher, who told him to keep quiet about it. Virts has had some blistering e-mail exchanges with the Delrey staff over that allegation, which Delrey officials deny, and eventually Virts made a police report about the incident.
During a June 5 visit to the Virts’ home, Justin is shy.
“Tell him how you fell off the chair, the beanbag chair,” Virts prompts her son, who is sitting on her lap. “Tell him what you told the police woman.”
“I fell when I was on the beanbag chair,” Justin finally says, looking down.
“Who picked you up?” his mother asks.
“What did she say?”
“Not to tell my mom.”